For the past five years, China has had the world’s fastest computer, a striking symbolic achievement that highlighted the nation’s ambitions and progress in high-tech.
But the United States has regained the lead thanks to a new supercomputer built for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee by IBM in a partnership with Nvidia. The speedy performance of the machine, called Summit, was announced Friday.
“We’re seeing the U.S. back on top again,” said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who tracks supercomputer speeds and rankings.
The Chinese government’s push to become the leader in technologies like artificial intelligence, microchips and cellular networks has ignited a rivalry with the United States, the traditional front-runner in the digital realm.
The Summit computer, which cost $200 million to build, is not just fast — it is also at the forefront of a new generation of supercomputers that embrace technologies at the center of the friction between the United States and China. The machines are adding artificial intelligence and the ability to handle vast amounts of data to traditional supercomputer technology to tackle the most daunting computing challenges in science, industry and national security.
Summit can do mathematical calculations at the rate of 200 quadrillion per second, or 200 petaflops. If a person did one calculation a second, she would have to live for more than 63 billion years to match what the machine can do in a second.
Supercomputers now perform tasks that include simulating nuclear tests, predicting climate trends, finding oil deposits and cracking encryption codes.
At Oak Ridge, Thomas Zacharia, the lab director, cites a large health research project as an example of the future of supercomputing. Summit has begun ingesting and processing data generated by the Million Veteran Program. Begun in 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs project is enlisting volunteers to give researchers access to all of their health records, contribute blood tests for genetic analysis and answer survey questions about their lifestyles and habits.
The eventual insights, Zacharia said, could “help us find new ways to treat our veterans and contribute to the whole area of precision medicine.”